Editor’s note: Although the indigenous strike that ended last week caused massive disruption, it was only the latest in a long series of indigenous protests. In fact, the strike pales in comparison to several others, especially the 1990 “levantamiento.” Historian Marc Becker chronicles the background and history of Ecuador’s indigenous movement.
By Marc Becker
In June 1990, in a powerful levantamiento, or uprising, the largest ever in Ecuador’s history, indigenous peoples blocked roads with boulders, rocks, and trees that paralyzed the transport system, effectively cutting off the food supply to the cities and shutting down the country for a week. Frustrated by stagnated talks with the government over bilingual education, agrarian reform, and demands to recognize the plurinational nature of Ecuador, the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) launched the uprising to force the government to negotiate.
Indigenous militants began to refer to this uprising as a pachakutik. In the Kichwa language, pacha means “time or land,” and kutik means “return to,” hence the word pachakutik implies a return in time or a cultural rebirth. It implies a process of change, rebirth, transformation, or cataclysm intended to rid the world of injustice and restore order. In a nutshell, pachakutik was the Kichwa word for the Andean concept of “revolution,” and it shook Ecuador’s white elite power base.
The 1990 levantamiento is commonly seen as representing the emergence of indigenous peoples as new political actors in Ecuador, but it formed part of a political engagement that evolved in a variety of ways throughout the twentieth century. In the 1920s indigenous activists organized peasant syndicates to fight for higher wages and better working conditions on haciendas (landed estates). With leftist support and encouragement, activists founded the Federación Ecuatoriana de Indios (FEI, Ecuadorian Federation of Indians) in 1944. The FEI was the first successful attempt to establish a national organization for and by indigenous peoples. It flourished from the 1940s through the 1960s but began to decline after realizing its main objective of agrarian reform in 1964.
In the 1960s new indigenous organizations surfaced that emphasized ethnic aspects of their struggle, including a defense of culture, religion, medicine, and bilingual education. Rather than being allied with labor unions and the political left, progressive sectors of the Catholic Church under the influence of liberation theology encouraged their development.
The first significant ethnic organization was the Shuar Federation that Salesian missionaries helped establish in the early 1960s. After the passage of agrarian reform legislation, progressive priests also helped found the Federación Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas (FENOC, National Federation of Peasant Organizations) and Ecuarunari (Ecuador Runacunapac Riccharimui, a Kichwa phrase that means to awaken the Ecuadorian Indians). In both cases religious workers sought to create these federations as alternatives to the Communist-dominated FEI. Both organizations soon distanced themselves from their religious base and began to move leftward, increasingly engaging class and economic issues of land reform and better living conditions.
In the 1980s indigenous intellectuals, returning to concepts that the Communist International had introduced in the 1920s, organized around the concept of indigenous nationalities. In 1980 the Shuar Federation joined other organizations to form the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana (CONFENIAE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon) to battle for the common interests of the indigenous peoples (Kichwa, Shuar, Achuar, Siona, Secoya, Cofan, and Huaorani) in the Amazon basin. In 1986, CONFENIAE joined Ecuarunari in the highlands to form the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) to combine all indigenous peoples into one large national pan-indigenous movement.
Whereas leftists and religious workers assisted in the formation of earlier federations, CONAIE increasingly benefited from alliances with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). CONAIE’s central and most controversial demand was to revise the constitution to recognize the plurinational character of Ecuador, a proposal that elites repeatedly rejected as undermining the unity and integrity of the country.
Although CONAIE attempted to position itself at the head of a unified movement, other currents and organizations competed for representation of indigenous concerns. FENOC renamed itself the Federación Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas Indígenas y Negras (FENOCIN, National Federation of Indigenous, Peasant, and Black Organizations) to reflect its broadened scope of struggling for the rights of peasant, indigenous, and Afro-Ecuadorian communities. The Federación Ecuatoriana de Indígenas Evangélicos (FEINE, Ecuadorian Federation of Evangelical Indians) promoted the holistic development of evangelical indigenous peoples, focusing on both their spiritual and their cultural identity.
CONAIE, FENOCIN, FEINE, and occasionally FEI coordinated efforts as they struggled for common goals. Sometimes they competed for the allegiance of the same people. It would be a mistake to conceptualize this as a unified indigenous movement, for in reality Ecuador had numerous indigenous movements representing competing interests, concerns, and cultures.
Scholars commonly paint the history of Ecuador’s indigenous movements as moving from a focus on local concerns to regional, national, and finally international issues, and transitioning through constructing indigenous demands in the language of class, then ethnicity, and finally nationality. This is too simplistic an interpretation, for since the 1920s indigenous organizations have often simultaneously engaged local, regional, national, and international issues, and organized on the basis of class, ethnic, and national identities.
In the 1920s peasant federations used the language of indigenous nationalities, whereas in the 1990s an authentic and democratic land reform continued to be one of CONAIE’s key economic demands. In April 1992, two thousand Kichwa, Shuar, and Achuar peoples began a 240-mile (385-kilometer) caminata (march) from the Amazon to Quito to demand legalization of land holdings. In June 1994 indigenous organizations again organized a “Mobilization for Life” campaign in protest of neoliberal economic reforms that would take away their land, privatize water resources, and undermine their economic livelihood.
The formation in 1995 of the Movimiento Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik-Nuevo País (MUPP-NP, Pachakutik Movement for Plurinational Unity-New Country) to campaign for political office represented a shift in strategies from a focus on civil society to a focus on electoral campaigns. Activists had long debated whether indigenous organizations should put forward their own candidates for political office, or whether they should support existing parties. Pachakutik represented the emergence of a third option in which indigenous peoples and other sectors of Ecuador’s popular movements organized together as equals to form a new political movement. It explicitly identified itself as part of a new Latin American left that embraced principles of community, solidarity, unity, tolerance, and respect.
Pachakutik opposed the government’s neoliberal economic policies and favored a more inclusive and participatory political system. It represented a culmination of CONAIE’s drive to insert indigenous peoples directly into debates, giving them a voice and allowing them to speak for themselves.
Pachakutik experienced moderate success on both local and national levels, and achieved significant gains in the 1998 constitutional assembly. Most significantly, in January 2000, indigenous leaders allied with lower ranking military officials in a coup that removed President Jamil Mahuad from power after he had implemented unpopular neoliberal economic policies.
In 2002, Pachakutik first allied with Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez in a bid for the presidency, but once he was in power Pachakutik broke from his government after he implemented the same neoliberal reforms that hurt poor and indigenous peoples. Indigenous movements had learned how to bring governments down, but it proved more difficult to construct viable and sustainable alternatives. The indigenous were part of the protests that removed Gutiérrez from office in April 2005.
In the 2021 election, the Pachakutik party enjoyed its biggest success ever, winning 27 seats in the 137-seat National Assembly. For leaders of the some of the indigenous organizations, the achievement was bittersweet since the reason for the party’s success was Pachakutik presidential candidate Yaku Perez who almost won a spot in the runoff, who was not considered a true radical.
Marc Becker is a professor of Latin American Studies at Truman State University in Missouri. He is a co-founder of NativeWeb, an internet resource that compiles information about Indigenous peoples around the world.